Snow and ice can make the winter field season a challenging time: many of our field sites are remote, and icy conditions can make access extremely difficult (if not impossible).
Like the other Priority Areas, Northern Strathspey has been in the grips of an icy winter so far, with many forest tracks more like toboggan runs than footpaths. But winter is the best time of year to find wildcats, primarily because it is the breeding season and cats tend to roam more widely (males are looking for females, and female cats are not tied to kittens at a den site).
A cold winter with a layer of snow is particularly good for finding cats, because they are less able to catch their natural prey and therefore more likely to visit our baited camera stations. Bait is very important to attract cats to our cameras because unlike many other British mammals, wildcats leave little sign of their presence and so we can rarely rely on field signs to target camera locations. Instead, we usually choose camera sites based on landscape/habitat features that act to restrict or funnel animal movement (like predator holes in a long fence line).
But snow has an additional unique advantage: cat tracks! The snow is an incredibly valuable resource in finding and targeting potential cat locations, because you can identify cat prints and target your camera locations.
Our Project Officer Dr Keri Langridge described yesterday as "one of my best ever days in the field," after finding many potential wildcat tracks in a remote part of her Northern Strathspey wildcat Priority Area. The find was particularly significant because the area is unlikely to be inhabited by feral cats, with few people or pet cats nearby.
Keri said: "You can't really tell the difference between Scottish wildcat paw prints and domestic feral/pet cats, [there may be slight size differences, and different gait length between prints but this depends on the size of the cat; you get large domestic cats and small wildcats] but the area we found them in made this a significant find”.
"The area is remote, the closest people don't have pet cats, and there are recent reliable sightings of wildcat-looking cats. More importantly, there are large numbers of rabbit prints all over the site, suggesting a great hunting location".
She added: "We have put trail cameras out and await the pictures with baited breath. Unfortunately, we cannot tell how hybridised the cats might be from prints alone, so we now need good photographs of the pelage of this individual/s to see whether it will score highly enough to be classed as a wildcat or a hybrid".
Keri revealed it is extremely rare to find any kind of cat tracks, especially this clear and unambiguous, and far from human habitation “People often send us photos of suspected cat tracks but they are usually confused with dog or fox. Cat prints are round, about the size and shape of a 2p coin, with four digital pads and no claw marks”.
She added: "These are the first unequivocal (potential) wildcat tracks I have seen in three years, and the best I or WildCRU's Kerry Kilshaw, who was with me, has ever seen.
"Of course it may turn out to be a hybrid, but it gives you that little bit of excitement and hope that it might be something really good, and that’s enough to keep you slipping and sliding up these toboggan runs in a howling blizzard for a few more months yet".